Local Takes: San Juan

Five notable locals show us how to do their town, their way.

WORDS Francisco Alvarado
December 2019
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Photography EE Berger

San Juan, with its colorful colonial buildings and cobblestone streets, was founded in 1521, almost a century before the Mayflower arrived in America. Sturdy walls still enclose portions of the old city, but the capital has expanded into surrounding neighborhoods, upping its reputation as not just a tropical getaway but also a cultural one. In 2017, hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed much of San Juan. More than two years later, we profile five locals who continue to innovate and redefine its identity, from a gallerist honoring Boricua art and an award-winning chef to a surfboard shaper riding the waves at Escambrón Beach.

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Ricky Muñiz at La Ocho at Escambrón Beach.

Ricky Muñiz, 33
Surfer and surfboard maker
Hitting the Waves at Escambrón

Ricky Muñiz pulls his blue work van into the parking lot of Faccio Pizza, an ample street-corner eatery in Cupey, a hilly suburb about 20 minutes south of Old San Juan. The pizzeria, founded by two brothers in 1973, is the surfboard maker’s go-to spot when he’s looking for a quick bite. “I’ve been coming here since I was a kid,” he says. “It’s the biggest pizza franchise in Puerto Rico.”

Since the owners moved the original Cupey location in 1986, the Faccio family has added nine other restaurants across the island. The menu features some Boricua-infused Italian dishes such as Pizza Jibara, a hearty pie that pays homage to Puerto Rican farmers via toppings of ground beef, sweet plantains and mozzarella and cheddar cheeses.

“Brother, I just love a plain cheese slice,” he says, munching on the thin, crispy crust dripping with oozy mozzarella. “New York-style or Puerto Rican-style, it’s my favorite.”

Muñiz takes me on a three-minute drive to his childhood home, which sits on a slope with a narrow stream serving as a border between civilization and the lush nature beyond.


Sierra de Cayey.

For an outdoorsy dude, living in Cupey is ideal—it’s 15 minutes from San Juan’s hottest surf spot, La Ocho at Escambrón Beach, where Muñiz started surfing when he was 6 years old, and 30 minutes from his favorite place to hike in Sierra de Cayey, specifically the twin mountain peaks jutting out of tropical forests in the nearby municipality of Salinas. When his mother relocated to a condo in Isla Verde, Muñiz moved back in and turned the house into his live-work abode.

“It’s my comfort zone,” he says. “I also mountain climb. In Puerto Rico, we have the benefit that outdoor activities connect to each other.

You can spend a few hours mountaineering and then go jump into the ocean and surf within a half-an-hour’s drive.”

We walk through the iron gates of his front patio to his backyard, where a work shed sits on the far end of the property. There, Muñiz meticulously shapes and glasses between 75 to 90 boards a year, each one selling for $650 to $900. Muñiz started making surfboards as an experiment during his final year in college in 2009, where he was studying to be an industrial designer. One by one, he made more, styling them after designs from the 1960s and 1970s.


Tresbé shipping-container café.

Soon, we’re off to one of his favorite surf spots, La Ocho at Escambrón Beach, but make a pit stop at Tresbé, an outdoor café with a kitchen inside a yellow shipping container. Located near the beachside neighborhood of Ocean Park, Muñiz says he likes Tresbé because it has the three B’s: “Bueno, bonito y barato.” (Good, beautiful and cheap.)

After picking up fruit smoothies, we arrive at Escambrón, a large public park with a crescent-shaped beach as well as bicycle trails and three scuba-dive operators.

Under a tree near the beach, an older surfer with white hair and tattoos instantly recognizes Muñiz. “Here comes the shaper!” the man shouts. “We call Ricky the foam artist. He makes boards with some really wild colors!”

Muñiz points to a line of surfers bobbing in the water at La Ocho, a reef break near shore. Long, barreling waves attract both novice and elite surfers. “The good thing about La Ocho is that the waves are easy to catch and they give you some margin for error.”

While he learned to surf as a kid, Muñiz didn’t start hitting La Ocho with regularity until his first year in college. Nowadays he surfs two to three times a week. “You can surf here 320 days out of the year, and I’m talking high-quality waves,” he says. “A month could go by and maybe I don’t surf, but La Ocho is always there. That’s a major benefit.”



Maria Grubb at Kiosko El Boricua.

Maria Grubb, 40
Chef and restaurateur
Laid-Back Eats in Isla Verde

The lunch-hour crowd is trickling into Panadería España, a 47-year-old cafeteria, bakery and wine store in Isla Verde, a lush and tropical neighborhood east of San Juan, home to several high-end beachfront resorts. Maria Grubb, a James Beard semifinalist, is known for helping transform the nearby neighborhood of Santurce with her luxe restaurant, Gallo Negro. But this afternoon she’s craving more casual fare and walks up to the hot-food counter. She orders the Friday lunch special: salted cod (bacalao) with a side of rice with squid ink and calamari.

We grab two seats at a long table next to a family of four munching on sandwiches. “I love the panadería culture,” she says between sips of freshly squeezed orange juice. “It’s key in Puerto Rico—something about having to share a table with others, that sense of community.”

Even the pickiest eaters will find something at Panadería España, which serves everything from paella and sandwiches to pastries and empanadas. Grubb often stops by for croquetas on her way to the beach. “It’s also a great way to start the day with some eggs, ham and toast, especially if you have a hangover,” she quips.


Desserts at Panadería España.

A Santurce native, Grubb remembers her parents taking her and her brother to Panadería España for special occasions back in the day. She’d order sardines with garlic bread, red onion and vinegar. “It’s one of my favorite childhood memories,” she says. “I like to tap into that nostalgia with my restaurant.”

Grubb was born in Puerto Rico but is of Dominican descent. Her grandmother owned a restaurant in the Dominican Republic, and her parents ran a hot-dog cart and worked in restaurants across Puerto Rico. Grubb had cooked rice and beans to help around the house since she was 8, but says she held no culinary aspirations until much later. “I wasn’t interested in it,” she admits. “I would always do the opposite of what my family did because I was a brat.”

It wasn’t until Grubb and her husband moved to New York City in 2002 that she considered becoming a professional chef. At 26, she enrolled at the International Culinary Center while working at a French restaurant. She spent about six years after her graduation working as a line cook for several fine-dining restaurants in the city and began throwing dinner parties, expanding her cooking beyond traditional Puerto Rican dishes. “It was kind of nice to start making things that are not necessarily Latino,” she says. “It was the first time I could cook something that wasn’t white rice, red beans and steak.”


Piñones beach.

After Grubb and I wipe the bacalao plate clean, we jump in her SUV for a 15-minute ride to Piñones, a stretch of beaches and mangrove forests east of Isla Verde where the chef likes to escape the hustle and bustle of her restaurant life. “It’s an easy getaway,” Grubb says. “I like to come here on my days off. I’ll go sit on the beach and there is nobody else.”

She pulls into a narrow street lined with food-and-beer shacks known locally as chinchorros. She parks her car and we head to one, where two men are barbecuing pork and chicken skewers on a large, wafting outdoor grill. We order six large chunks of pork dripping in BBQ sauce and an ice-cold coconut that we share while sitting on a bench with a wide view of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Sometimes, I will do my [restaurant] inventory on the beach,” Grubb says. “It is close to the city, but also far from the city.” Every Monday night, she brings her family here and they order a whole fried fish.

The culture of chinchorros is that you have a snack and a beer here and then another snack and a beer there.

So after polishing off the skewers and coconut water, we head to another popular chinchorro called Kiosko El Boricua and order two alcapurrias, a hearty treat of mashed yuca or cassava fried in oil. You can get it plain or stuffed with ground beef, chicken, shrimp, cod or lobster. A line of five people waits to pick up alcapurrias in the sweltering heat, as others sit at patio tables, noshing and listening to salsa music.

A few surfers catch waves off the quiet beach across the street. “I love the view,” she says, peering out over the horizon. “It makes me happier.”



Carli Muñoz plays the piano at Carli’s Fine Bistro & Piano.

Carli Muñoz, 71
Musician
The Charms of Old San Juan

Awash in soft purple stage light, Carli Muñoz’s fingers glide over the keys of a Steinway piano stationed at the end of his venue in Old San Juan. The self-taught pianist plays a string of Thelonious Monk classics for the jazz enthusiasts dining on ribeye steaks and racks of lamb. “I had a circle of friends who were mostly artists and I wanted a place I could go and feel good,” Muñoz explains. “It’s the ideal place to hang out with my friends.”

For the past 21 years, Carli’s Fine Bistro & Piano has been holding down the ground floor of the 1939 art deco Banco Popular building perched on top of Calle de Tetuan’s small hill overlooking the Port of San Juan. Six nights a week, Muñoz and other local musicians play live music ranging from jazz to bossa nova to samba to classic rock. “It’s really the only place dedicated to live music nearly every night,” Muñoz says. “I want this place to be a lighthouse that doesn’t go away.”

The club is decorated with an eclectic variety of mementos Muñoz has collected throughout the years, including posters and playbills from his days touring with the Beach Boys in the 1970s. There’s a model of the Hindenburg blimp hovering above the bar next to a kitschy chandelier.


Cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.

Muñoz has loved Old San Juan since he was a teen, when he got his first gig with a jazz band at a nearby club. Between the late 1960s and the 1980s, Muñoz bounced from New York City, where he was part of a rock band, to Los Angeles, where he hooked up with the Beach Boys (becoming the group’s keyboardist for more than a decade). But Old San Juan, with its neo-Gothic, Renaissance and baroque architecture, eventually lured him back.

When he’s not at his piano bar, Muñoz, his wife and daughter visit other Old San Juan establishments, such as Caficultura for a simple breakfast of eggs and sobao egg toast, or Chocobar Cortés for a chocolate take on the island’s national drink, the piña colada: the Chocolada, made with rum, coconut cream, whipped cream and toasted coconut.


Trois Cent Onze.

A three-minute walk on the cobblestone streets to Calle Fortaleza leads us to Trois Cent Onze, a French restaurant Muñoz takes out-of-town visitors to for an elegant dinner. On the next block, La Madre serves Mexican fusion, offering fajitas, tacos and enchiladas alongside Vietnamese basa, sesame-crusted rare ahi tuna and Japanese marinated skirt steak. 

Old San Juan’s the beating heart of Puerto Rico, and there’s no shortage of bars where locals and visitors can gyrate to the rhythms of merengue, reggaeton and salsa, such as La Factoria on Calle San Sebastian, Muñoz says. One of the world’s top 50 drinking establishments, La Factoria houses seven bars in a high-ceiling, low-lit space that specializes in craft cocktails.

On some nights patrons are known to dance until the lights come on at 4 a.m.



Naima Rodriguez at Pública Espacio.
 

Naima Rodriguez, 36
Gallerist
Getting Cultured in Santurce and Miramar

Naima Rodriguez steps inside Caldera Café as if she were walking into her own kitchen, greets manager Christie Robles with a smile, and orders us an espresso and cortadito made with coffee beans grown in the Maricao mountains on the western side of the island.

In February, Rodriguez moved her arts nonprofit and gallery, Pública Espacio, into the 4,000-square-foot storefront next door on the tree-lined Avenida Juan Ponce de Leon, already home to several cultural institutions. “When I was in college, I really came to realize the importance of independent projects that show a different side of how [Puerto Ricans] are portrayed in the mainstream,” Rodriguez says.

We’re technically on the border between Santurce and Miramar, two neighborhoods that were once a no-man’s-land but are currently enjoying a renaissance as eclectic galleries and creative workspaces trickle in. Most mornings Rodriguez pops over to Caldera for a quick breakfast and some friendly banter before opening her gallery. “Christie is a great neighbor,” Rodriguez leans in to tell me. “I’ve learned a lot from her in the short time I’ve been next door. It’s important that we look out for each other.”

Today we take our coffee to go and head to Pública Espacio. On this day, it’s exhibiting works from four different artists that incorporate occult Caribbean references and Puerto Rican street art. “The gallery doesn’t sell any art,” Rodriguez explains. “The goal is simply to showcase up-and-coming Puerto Rican artists, create a dialogue and have conversations about different themes.”

Rodriguez grew up in Trujillo Alto, a city 20 minutes south of San Juan, and was introduced to art at an early age by her father, who ran a gallery in Old San Juan. She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico’s law school, but found herself taking on creative projects, such as a comedic theater collective she launched in 2006 called Teatro Breve.


Eclectic dining room of El Patio de Solé.

Rodriguez and I stroll west from the gallery, passing a crew of construction workers filing in and out of a nearby building undergoing renovations at the end of the block. “Developers buying up these properties can be positive,” she says. “But the rents are going to go up a lot and may not be accessible for all of us. We’ll see.”

Rodriguez points to the closed wood doors of El Crucerito, one of her favorite watering holes. On weekend nights, Rodriguez says, hip art patrons will spill out of her gallery to the quaint salmon-colored structure and sit at tables outside.

“That’s our hangout spot,” she says, “where people drink beers and play pool after the art shows.”

We take a quick jaunt to Santurce Pop, a two-story warehouse that contains retail shops, co-working spaces and a bookstore. The latter, Librería La Esquinita, is run by her good friend and local author Luis Negrón, who writes about the queer experience in his poetry and stories. Here, Rodriguez can pick up literature by Puerto Rican authors, such as novelists and essayists Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá and Magali García Ramis. The friendship that blossomed between her and Negrón is a testament to the spirit of collaboration in Santurce, Rodriguez says.


Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center.

One block over is the Museum of Contemporary Art of Puerto Rico, a 1916 Georgian-style building that features works from Puerto Rican and Caribbean artists, and the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center, one of the city’s signature cultural institutions with three concert and theater halls. We pass by El Patio de Solé, a former hardware store that owner Jose Solé transformed into a café serving traditional Puerto Rican cuisine. “I am running this place all crazy,” Solé says from behind an open window counter, “but I like to cook!”

Our final stop is the street-art-focused Instituto de Subcultura founded by gallerist Alexis Bousquet, the mastermind behind Santurce Es Ley, an annual showcase of artists from Puerto Rico and abroad who paint murals on the sides of vacant buildings in the neighborhood. “It’s a bit controversial because it’s contributed to the gentrification of Santurce,” she says. “But a lot of these buildings were abandoned until people started painting on them and [investors began] buying up properties. It’s all about finding a balance.”



Margarita Álvarez in her studio.

Margarita Álvarez, 33
Fashion Designer
Vibing Over Drinks in Santurce and Condado

Dressed head-to-toe in black and white, Margarita Álvarez sips a soy latte topped with a frothy design in what was once a Church’s Chicken but is now a colorful, casual dining spot called Tostado, located in Santurce. “I am not kidding, I dream about this coffee,” Álvarez says. “I don’t know if it is the milk or the coffee beans.”

The San Juan fashion designer moved to Los Angeles in 2015 to follow her sartorial ambitions, appearing on season 16 of Project Runway (she finished fourth in the popular reality TV show) and becoming the first Puerto Rican woman to present at New York Fashion Week. Since returning to San Juan two years ago to open a studio, she has re-embraced island living, and discovered a slew of new eateries and cocktail bars hip enough to rival anything back in the States.


Salad at Sabrina Brunch & Bistro Bar.

Sandwiched between the seaside neighborhoods of Ocean Park and Condado Beach, Calle Loíza attracts hip locals and in-the-know tourists alike. Tostado opened in March, following in the steps of other restaurants including Sabrina Brunch & Bistro Bar, a Caribbean cuisine restaurant and, according to Álvarez, the place for boozy brunch, and Azucena, which whips up traditional Puerto Rican dishes with a twist, such as the snapper fillet with truffle mofongo, and paella with octopus, rabbit and local sausage.

 “Calle Loíza is a happening place now,” says Tostado owner Bryan Torres. “This used to be a fast-food chain and next to us was a Burger King. Now it’s a wine bar, Bottega.”

Calle Loíza is also San Juan’s trendy retail street specked with boutiques, such as Vice Versa, Álvarez’s spot for vintage furniture and art, and Len.T.juela, which sells local handmade pieces from stickers to T-shirts. 

We hop in an Uber and head south to Santurce, a trendy neighborhood that is sprouting high-end restaurants. The car drops us off at Prole Cocina & Barra, a clandestine restaurant on Calle Cerra, just a few blocks from Álvarez’s two-story storefront that doubles as her home and fashion studio. When she left Puerto Rico five years ago, Calle Cerra was a dead zone. “When I told people I was on Cerra, they were like, ‘Ew, really?’ Now, all the hottest restaurants have opened on that street.”

At Prole, Álvarez and I claim two chairs at the corner of the white marble bar and nosh on veal shank over bucatini pasta topped with whipped ricotta cheese. “Every day I look at their Instagram to see what’s on the menu,” Álvarez says with a guilty grin.

After another round of drinks, we go for a stroll and pass a large group congregating outside Esquina Watusi, a cramped watering hole with only enough room for a wood bar and shelves stocked with libations. In recent years, El Watusi has become popular after being featured in an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. “Before that, the only people who came were the mechanics from the car shop across the street,” she adds.


Condado Beach.

As dusk falls we head towards Ashford Avenue in the beachy Condado neighborhood that’s undergoing a sumptuous revival two years after Hurricane Maria decimated its beachfront. We duck into Jose Enrique, an upscale seafood restaurant by the James Beard semifinalist that was once a little shack in La Placita de Santurce. Without reservations, the wait for dinner seating is long, so we take consolatory frozen coquito shots at the bar instead.

Condado’s upturn has more players coming in. Swanky steak house STK recently opened at the Condado Vanderbilt, a five-star hotel originally built in 1919, and La Marqueta is an open-air food hall housing nine distinct food concepts in shipping containers. “Back in the day, even when I was a little girl, this area behind the Condado Lagoon had been completely abandoned,” she says.

We take our nightcap at Jungle Bird, a bar in La Placita that has fully embraced the island theme with its Taíno-inspired tropical cocktails. Álvarez orders a Frida’s Visit to MoMA, which consists of tequila blanco, cachaça, orange liqueur, raspberries, lemon and salty cilantro spray. I sip on a vodka cocktail called Adios Pantalones (Goodbye Pants), made with pisco, pineapple, hot spices and lime.

“We are getting great restaurants and bars. It’s insane how much has changed,” Álvarez says over the DJ playing obscure rock ’n’ roll 45s on his turntable. “It’s giving locals an opportunity to showcase their talents.”


MORE LOCAL TAKES

Jennifer Serrano
Co-owner of Señor Paleta ice cream shops

Teatro Tapia is the oldest performing arts center in the city, completed in the 1800s. I love its historic significance, and it’s also an excellent venue to catch theater and ballet performances, or a cello concerto. It’s very romantic.

Valerie Bosch
Owner of Len.T.juela boutique

Sixne is a concept store on Calle Loiza that offers trendy, urban apparel. It sells exclusive street brands at a high price point, but the quality is very good. And it has a barber shop.

Héctor Santos López
Bartender, Caribar at Caribe Hilton

Ladi’s Restaurant is a great local spot to check out when en route to Old San Juan. They have some of the best ocean views in the city and amazing, incredibly fresh seafood. Try the halibut when you go. You won’t be sorry!

Roberto Biaggi
Muralist and co-founder of Cero Design & Built

Historically, La Perla has been one of the most famous sites to avoid. But it is a very important community, featuring works from relevant artists who have transformed the neighborhood. Drink a beer there during the day and take in the spectacular view.

Laura Om
Om Studio hair and beauty salon owner

People can drink and dance in the streets at night at La Plaza del Mercado de Santurce, but I like to go during the day. It’s a mix of Dominican and Puerto Rican cultures, where I buy fresh fruits and vegetables and local products.


Into the Jungle

A hike to the peaks of El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest managed by the United States Forest Service.

The fog-shrouded mountains of El Yunque National Forest draw more than 600,000 visitors per year, but climb high enough and you’ll find an almost magical tranquility amid the only tropical rain forest managed by the United States Forest Service. Javier Ruiz, my guide, picks me up in San Juan and in less than 40 minutes we are driving up the mountain. We talk as we walk, and I learn about different plants sprouting along the trails until we reach the Mt. Britton Tower. From there, we peer out over 28,000 acres of bright green canopy that spread across the peaks.

We continue to the Yunque Peak Trail, and the trees shrink as we climb, a phenomenon caused by altitude. It begins to rain even though the hills below are bathed in sunlight, and I learn we are inside the cloud that crowns El Yunque almost daily.

We veer off on a side trail to Los Picachos, walking alongside the sheer rock face and up cement steps for a panoramic view.

By the time we reach the peak of El Yunque, the rain has stopped and all I can hear is the whistle of the wind, distant bird calls and the coquí frogs singing faintly. Los Picachos is now below us and a rainbow forms over the valley as plumes of fog drift over the mountains. —Andrea Moya
toursbylocals.com

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